Death of a river

An artistic expression of the decay suffered by the Yamuna over the years is on display in the Capital

March 02, 2013 03:22 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:39 pm IST

Pollution on canvas: Works highligting pollution in the Yamuna. Photo: Vibha Galhotra

Pollution on canvas: Works highligting pollution in the Yamuna. Photo: Vibha Galhotra

The Yamuna has been dying, silently and slowly but certainly for years and now it is dead. The flow that you see is pollution and sewage, the river has no natural flow except for a few days during the peak of monsoons when the Hathnikund barrage releases excess water from its reservoir in the channel of the river. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) informed the Supreme Court on November 9 last year that “For major part of the year, river Yamuna does not flow downstream of Wazirabad barrage as all the river water upstream of the barrage is ponded (harnessed) for water supply in Delhi. Yamuna flows after confluence of Najafgarh drain downstream of Wazirabad barrage.”

In fact the Yamuna began dying as far back as the 1880s. This was the year when the Chandrawal water works were created to supply piped water to the citizens of Shahjahanabad. A move that gradually weaned the population of the city away from their traditional sources of water supply like the wells, step-wells, ponds, reservoirs and the Neher Ali Mardan Khan -- the canal that brought to Delhi the water of the Yamuna from Hansi and Hissar almost 130 km away.

The supply of piped water was followed a few years later by an underground sewage system that began to carry all the filth of the city to the river. The piped water and sewage system was the gift of urban planning that our colonial masters gave us, they showed great foresight in ensuring that the drains that carried the sewage into the river were downstream of Chandrawal. They did not however care too much that Kosi, Brindaban, Barsana, Mathura, Agra and scores of other cities and virtually hundreds of villages lined the entire course of the Yamuna from Delhi to Allahabad and they had to clean up the filth of Delhi before making the water potable. But the British have been gone for three generations, for 66 years, have we done anything to recover our rivers or have we just continued down the same path of assured self-destruction?

During the 1890s and till a few years later the Yamuna used to have a flow even in the driest of months and the population of Delhi even in 1911was barely 240,000. The output of sewage would not have been very high and the waters of the Yamuna managed to survive.

Today, the picture is totally different — the population of Delhi has grown to cross 14 million, the short sighted policy of building large dams and barrages along the course of every big or mid-sized river has led to a situation that the river in Delhi has no water once we discount the flow of untreated sewage.

This is the condition when yet another project, called the Yamuna interceptor scheme, worth Rs. 1,800 crores, has been launched to clean the Yamuna. This is one more of the scores of schemes worth thousands of crores that have yielded little fruit. What needs to be done is to set up a series of small water treatment plants all along the course of the so-called nalas that criss- cross the city and to prevent untreated sewage from entering the river, treat the sewage before it gets into the streams/ nalas and the streams and the river will live again.

Instead of doing that we are hiding the filth by building roads and Dilli Haats on top of the nalas /streams .These nalas /streams were the tributaries of the Yamuna not too many decades ago. The construction will hide the filth from the eyes of the citizens and untreated sewage will continue to empty into the Yamuna, even if the interceptor works very efficiently the thousands of millions of litres of sewage collected in settlement ponds will continue to leach toxins into the sub soil.

All this we have learnt to take into our stride, this has become common place and routine and we have stopped caring. If you think that people need to be jolted out of their apathy, there is a very simple thing to do — send them to Exhibit 320 at Lado Sarai.

There is an exhibition entitled ‘Sediments and other untitled…’ that approaches the issue of pollution and of the pollution of life giving water in a way that only an artist can do. An artist has the ability to present the quotidian in such a way that it gets transformed beyond recognition, from the common place, routine, humdrum and mundane, the subject is metamorphosed into something absolutely new, something that acquires the quality to draw you in or to repulse you depending on the emotions that the artist invests her work with.

Vibha Galhotra is a young artist and her works constantly engage with life and its pitfalls, her latest exhibition ‘Sediments and other untitled…’ focuses on the sediments of a polluted river and with water and its pollution. Go see her canvasses where she has used congealed oil and other noxious elements gathered from the surface of the Yamuna. She uses them as her paint. Go see it, I am sure you will be jolted into doing something about it. The exhibition is on till March 18.

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